When Super PACs Head Downticket

by Chas Danner

Andrew Romano investigates outside spending against Democrats, which is flooding into downticket races:

For all Chicago’s complaining, the impact of outside money on the national contest may wind up being minimal; the polls have been static so far, and after a certain point, there are only so many hundreds of millions of dollars that can be pumped into the Denver ad market. Where the cash could make the biggest difference, however, is on the state level. “Dropping $15 million into the presidential race won’t be determinative,” says Rick Hasen, an expert on campaign finance at the University of California, Irvine. “Dropping $15 million into a Senate race will be a bombshell.”

The effect this money is having on Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown is palpable:

In theory, the contest shouldn’t be close. Brown has outraised [GOP opponent Josh] Mandel by $5.1 million. His approval and disapproval ratings are roughly equal; Mandel’s unfavorables outstrip his favorables by a perilous 15 percentage points. This is part of the reason why Brown was drubbing Mandel by an average of more than 13 points as recently as January—even though the populist, pro-Obama senator is far more progressive than the swing state he represents.

But then the super PACs and 501(c)(4)s began to spend on Mandel’s behalf: nearly $12 million so far, or more than Brown dropped on his entire 2006 campaign, with another $7 million reserved for the fall. The number on Brown’s side of the ledger is much smaller: about $3 million from unions, liberal interest groups, and Democratic super PACs. All told, Mandel’s third-party allies have outspent and outreserved Brown’s 6 to 1, and nearly twice as much money has been spent and set aside by or for Mandel than Brown. No other competitive Senate race is this lopsided. In response, the polling gap between Mandel and Brown has shrunk to 7.7 percent, and strategists are beginning to talk of the race as a possible tossup.

Steve Kornacki thinks presidential race spending may just be a distraction:

It’s races like these that have the potential to be the real campaign money stories of the year. Voters know far less about the average Senate candidate than they do about Obama and Romney, and they follow Senate races with much less interest than presidential contests. The same is even more true when you get farther down the ballot to contests for the U.S. House and state and local offices. This is where the Republican super PAC advantage could really be felt in November, with massive spending disparities lifting GOP candidates in races they might otherwise lose, potentially flipping the Senate and making it impossible for Democrats to win back control of the House. 

(Video: Attack ad from Karl Rove's Super ("non-profit issues") PAC, Crossroads GPS, airing against Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown in Ohio)